There are roosluise crawling out of the centres of my almost mature rosebuds. They scurry in and out as if taunting me in a triumphant dance. I haven’t yet had the courage to tell Adriaan there won’t be roses in the house this month. I’m going to have to cut all of them down to their stems to be sure.
Earlier tonight Wilmar walked up to the house for supper to congratulate me and Adriaan on the news. I told them the food was too rich and that it made me feel sick before I went into the garden. I sat under my peach tree, cross-legged like I used to when I was a little girl in Ma’s garden. I heard my fygies whispering to the kappertjies and leeubekkies that change is unavoidable. The wind rustled their petite faces and folded them in half. I lifted my dress and peered at the folded belly underneath. It’s not too round yet, but it’s not soft like it used to be. The moon was climbing over Wilmar’s rooftop in the distance.
I lay back with my head on the hard ground. Little rocks poked my skull and memories trickled through the cracks it made. I remembered coming to Rustoord. I remembered falling in love with Adriaan. But mostly I remembered the dirt under my nails that tasted of bitter earth when I cleaned it out with my teeth, and the smell of jasmine before I became used to smelling it every day, and planting my baby peach tree when it was only as tall as me.
I rocked myself upright when the moon was almost at the edge of the mountain where the sheep lay huddled together. Adriaan and Wilmar were probably worried about me by now. I fingered the threads of grass between my thumb and forefinger, polishing each leaf I could find as I sat waiting for the blood to flow from my head to my legs. I could see the two brothers sitting in the lounge through our sheer curtains. Adriaan with his cup of sweet rooibos tea and Wilmar with his glass of neat whiskey. I remember seeing them like that before we got married. I think back to that day often now – ever since those roosluise appeared.
I met Adriaan at a rugby game. He was cheering for his brother who played flank. Wilmar was fast and tall and had knopkierie knees but was built like an ox. Adriaan was lean and tender looking but always upright with his hands in his hair or over his mouth as if screaming next to a rugby field was an act of embarrassing barbarism. I watched him get excited and then turn to look if someone saw him jump. Then he would fix his shirt into his jeans, clap his hands clumsily and say, “Come on boys” to himself. Wilmar approached me after the game and asked if we could go dancing. I said yes. He picked me up in a Ford and brought me a quaint bundle of daisies he had obviously picked from his mother’s garden. I tried to fall in love with him, but he smelled of Pa’s aftershave and wanted to kiss me even when I pulled away.
The next time I saw Wilmar, Adriaan was driving the car. I climbed in next to him and he turned his head and smiled at me, teeth and all. My heart blossomed from a shut bud and spilt rose petals up my throat and into my mouth; making it so dry I couldn’t say a word. I think Wilmar could smell the petals. He told Adriaan to take me for a drive. He had a surprise for me later that morning. Adriaan and I drove to his uncle’s farm. He stopped the car on a koppie overlooking a winding river that disappeared on the horizon. I swallowed hard until all the petals were back in my stomach and we spoke for what felt like a season. I don’t remember having ever talked about so many insignificant details with anyone, not even my best friend Marie. But no matter how small the words or their meanings, each sentence shared was one love song that melted into the next. He held my hand as we drove home. It was almost tea time and we’d forgotten about Wilmar waiting for us. Wilmar had walked home sourly after waiting for me all morning, my mother told me that afternoon.
Three months later I knew Adriaan was going to ask me to marry him. I sat in his parents’ garden on a tree stump looking at him and Wilmar in the kitchen. I think Wilmar cried because Adriaan took his shaking glass of whiskey from his hand and propped it on the windowsill. He held Wilmar to his chest as gently as only Adriaan could. I should have felt sorry for him or at least a little guilty, but I knew this meant that Adriaan loved me as I loved him.
I got up from my grassy seat; my dress damp with soil and entered the living room where Wilmar and Adriaan sat talking about someone I didn’t know. I sat beside Adriaan on the armrest of his chair, my dress covering his knees like a blanket. His lips touched my cheek as Wilmar said, “It’s getting late. Congratulations again. I’d better get to bed.” Wilmar got up so suddenly that he knocked a porcelain figurine from the side table where he plonked his glass without looking.
“Sorry, sorry!” he said as he bent down to pick up the pieces. I couldn’t watch. Just last autumn I carefully packed that very frog figurine away to save it from little clumsy hands, and now big clumsy hands have broken it anyway.
Last autumn, Adriaan’s sister and her husband came to visit us on the farm. His sister has two children. I have always been fond of Estelle and her husband Johannes. Estelle and I sat under the peach tree most afternoons, collecting fallen leaves on our laps while drinking tea, and in the evenings we watched soapies together. Johannes complimented my cooking and the smell of fresh flowers in their room each morning, which I was glad to hear from someone who wasn’t my husband for a change. Their children on the other hand were messy little things that left marks on any and all reachable surfaces with their sticky fingers, including Adriaan’s books. The little one screamed at night, as though sleep would come to those who disturb others’ sleep and she refused to eat when her mother told her to, turning her ugly little face from side to side in obstinate negation. The other one was rounder and more likeable because he didn’t cry as often anymore. But I had to put my ornaments away before they came because I was warned he might break things. I was constantly on the lookout. For a week I couldn’t leave my garden unguarded because he would run through my pappawers like a klipspringer. He plucked my daisies roots and all, clutching them into balls in his fists and throwing them down on the ground behind the bakkie when he jumped on the back, begging Adriaan to take him to the sheep. I told him not to touch my flowers as I squeezed his shoulder just there where I know it’s tender enough to get my point across. He ran screaming to his mother in the kitchen. Estelle wasn’t happy and asked me to be gentler with her children. I couldn’t believe it; after all, it was her little brats who ran around wrecking my garden and soiling my home. I still don’t know why she didn’t leave them with their ouma. Their visit would have been far more pleasant.
I dreamt of the lice tonight. They were crawling around on rose petals. But the petals weren’t attached to the stems of my roses in the garden. They were scattered about, floating in a dark cave, as if hanging from invisible vines. I tried to make out where the lice were coming from, feeling like I was blinking my eyes towards the sun. The space was dark red and throbbing like a heart. But it wasn’t a heart. It was my stomach in which these lice were scurrying, eating away at the petals inside of me. I opened my eyes and saw that the window was open so I reached over to find a candle, but my hand was heavy with the pulse of blood. I saw a light in the distance – probably Wilmar’s.
I could not lie still anymore, even though Adriaan insisted I should rest more frequently now. But I needed to do something about the lice; they would keep me up all night if I didn’t. As I was about to open the front door, I found myself searching for something in Adriaan’s bookshelf. Behind Kunstige Tuine there was a black leather casing calling for me to finger it. That old familiar feeling of reading before bed as a child befell me and I couldn’t help but pull the dusty book from the shelf. It had Die Bybel written in faded gold on the front cover. I flicked it open and inside I found a pressed flower – a daisy. I clutched it in my hand, feeling the petals crunch and left the book on the table beside the door as I exited.
I have in the one hand my garden shears with which I am going to destroy the lice once and for all. In the other, there are crumbs stuck to my sweaty palms – the remnants of a pressed flower given to me by a man I don’t love. I stand before my rows of picturesque roses, my dear children. I see the stars gleaming specs of light on the edges of the petals and watch them ignite as clouds pass away from the moon. I see them smile at me, each face differently folded but equally adored. I look them in the eyes, each and every one and in a promise, I lift my silk nightdress up to my chin with my flower-powdered hand. I tell them, “Alles gaan piekfyn wees” and press the cold steel blade on my inner thigh. Adrenaline ruptures into full bloom and I feel the petals rising from my stomach as I did that day in the car with Adriaan. The shears prod me open and the hollow between my legs swallow them until I can release my fingers from the rounded end and lie down on my side. My roses are horizontal flags calling “Victory!”
I can feel a frown on my face as I contract against the thudding ache. It is not like the pain from stubbing my toe on a rock or accidentally poisoning my finger with a rose thorn. It is a deafening discomfort that lurks deep beneath the surface. Could it be worse than giving birth? The pulse of my heart becomes a wrench with which each turn opens a tap so more blood can rush southbound. The ache just below my stomach causes me to roll from side to side in a shiver.
I wait for the moon to pass my peach tree and lift my hand from the wet grass. I see only black now because my eyes have shut and my lids are too heavy to lift, but I can feel my hands tremble in the midnight air. I make contact with my skin and the excretion of the pest from my belly. The roosluis inside me feels both rough and slimy as though I’ve been rinsing clothes and my fingertips are wrinkled. When I pinch my fingers together, I don’t feel skin on skin. It is only wet.
I feel my cheeks bundle in a smile because I know my hand is covered in red – the most beautiful red like my roses when there are no white specs of lice.